The Powerful Pulley Rein

The pulley-rein is for emergency stops, but it can also be a versatile addition to your riding toolbox. Learn the different ways to use this valuable rein aid.

If your horse is running away with you, a pulley rein—where you brace one hand in his crest and pull back strongly with the other—is THE emergency stopping aid to stop a horse from bolting. But if you reserve the pulley rein for emergencies, you’re missing out on one of the most effective riding tools for slowing (also known as “rating”) or turning on course.

It’s not necessarily a rein aid you’re going to use very often, but when your horse gets too strong and fast in jumpers, a well-timed pulley rein is far more effective and less “combative” than hanging or seesawing. In fact, a pulley rein, done subtly, can even be a handy aid in hunters. I’ve certainly used it on a too-fresh hunter when I’ve come off a line and thought, “Wow! I have to slow down,” but I don’t want to lean back or pull left and right, which doesn’t work anyway. I very discreetly tuck one hand down, give a good pull on the other rein to tone it down a bit, and as soon as I have a response, I let go and no one’s the wiser.

Not All Pulley Reins Are Equal

There are subtle but important differences in the timing and technique for emergency stopping, slowing down and turning. In this article, I’ll explain those differences and dig into the when, why and how of all three versions.

There is one BIG similarity, however. The mechanical advantage of a pulley rein depends on you remaining in two-point, light in your seat with a slightly closed hip angle. You would think just the opposite–that you’d be stronger and more effective sitting down on your pockets and leaning back. But a pulley rein is all about leverage, and that depends on real depth in your heel and a hip angle closed just enough to increase the downward push of the hand you’re bracing in your horse’s crest. Even though you’re in two-point, he can’t pull you out of the tack and he can’t pull your arms forward until you’ve stopped him or rated his speed back down to what you want.

Got it? Great! Let’s begin with …

The Emergency Stopping Aid

When to use it: Self-explanatory! Whether you’re in the ring or on the trail, your horse takes off at a dead run.

Quick tip: The effectiveness and safety of this pulley rein–in which you turn or pull your horse to the outside–depends on quickly identifying where the outside is. In the arena, the outside is the rail, which you can use as a secondary physical barrier to help slow or stop him. On the trail, the outside is the direction away from slippery or dangerous footing, a roadway with cars rushing by or the edge of a cliff or steep hill–anything you want to avoid when your horse is even slightly out of control.

How to do it: Stay or get into two-point with your weight deep in your heels and a slightly closed hip angle. Plant the knuckles of your inside hand in your horse’s crest just forward of the withers. Curl your hand by slightly cocking your wrist inward toward your forearm until you apply enough steady pressure on the rein to brace against it.

Now bring your outside hand back and up to between the middle and top of your rib cage to pull your horse’s head slightly to the outside. Keep your horse’s neck fairly straight, and only tip his nose to the outside. If you turn his neck too much, he may lose his balance and stumble or even fall. Maintain the firm contact on the inside rein and the up-and-back pull on the outside rein until he slows and stops.

The Slowing-Down Aid

When to use it: Anytime you’re on course and your horse starts to get so strong or fast that you lose control over direction and speed, and so he’s likely to put in a bad or dangerous jumping effort.

Quick tip: If you’re like most people, you are stronger and more dexterous with one hand than the other. For this aid, the inside and outside of the emergency stop are less important than the hand with which you are most comfortable and proficient.

How to do it: Again, stay in two-point with your weight deep in your heels and a slightly closed hip angle. Plant your weaker, say, in this case, left hand in your horse’s crest forward of the withers so you can lean against the rein and brace yourself. With your stronger right hand, pull back in a fairly direct rein action–not so much of the back-and-up movement in the emergency stop, especially in the hunters, where you want to keep it discreet and no higher than your hip.

You don’t want absolutely equal pressure on both reins, but something pretty close to equal pressure so you keep your horse’s head straight in front of him and don’t pull it to the right. You don’t want him to pull you out of the saddle and accelerate, but you DO want to continue on your chosen track and not turn.

As soon as you feel your horse slow down to the pace you want, soften the contact on both reins to reward him and tell him to not break gait or stop. How much to lighten? That’s a judgment call depending on your horse’s general tendency to lean or stay soft.

The Turning Aid 

When to use it: Obviously, when you need to turn on course.

Quick tip: This rein is more like the runaway aid in that you have an inside and an outside, but in this case, the aids are reversed, with your bracing hand on the outside and your pulley rein on the inside. Depending on how hot and strong your horse is, and how much he pulls, you could find yourself switching hands all the way around a course as your track changes.

How to do it: Let’s say you want to turn to the right. Stay in two-point with the weight deep in your heels and brace your outside left hand in your horse’s crest just forward of the withers. Take back and a little bit up with your inside right rein while really curling your outside knuckles down into your horse’s neck. Hold that rein as tight as necessary to make him turn without simply bending his head and neck to the inside so he’s falling out over his left shoulder. As soon as you’re back on the track you want, soften and return to a two-rein contact.

Avoid Pulley-Rein Pitfalls

Develop a feel for pace: Are you going along at a canter that’s too slow? A gallop that’s a bit too exuberant and exceeds what you want? And what IS that ideal medium pace that you want to get back to? If you don’t know, you can’t soften to simultaneously reward your horse for coming back and to make it clear that you want him to continue on without breaking gait or stopping. I work RELENTLESSLY on all my students to recognize, “OK, at 10 mph, I’m in a collected canter that I’m regulating. Once I move out of that collected zone to a 12 mph medium canter or a 14 mph hand gallop, I’d better use my pulley rein to come back to my collected canter. Once I’m there, I soften and return to two direct reins to hold it.”

Know your horse’s tendency to lean or stay soft: It’s the only way to know whether you actually need the pulley rein or if it’s a bit of overkill and two direct reins would suffice. It’s also the only way to know how much to lighten after he responds to a pulley rein, if you use one. I have a school horse who likes to pull, so I tell my students who ride him, “Use your pulley rein to slow down. Do you feel that he’s slowed down?” “Yes.” “Is he still pulling?” “Yes.” “Be comfortable with that. You have the tool in the pulley rein to slow him down, but you don’t have the tool to make him stop pulling because he doesn’t go that way.” It gives them confidence to say, “This horse is pulling, but I’m still in control of the actual speed. If I can be comfortable with him leaning against me, and I can use my pulley rein to slow down to where I need to be, I’m OK.” THAT is where the pulley rein is a good tool!

Remember to let go: If you continue to apply your pulley rein after your horse slows down or stops pulling, he’ll actually start going backward. It seems as if this would be obvious, but once you’re done, you’re done. LET GO!

Use plenty of bracing hand: The pressure or pull on your two reins should be equal or almost equal. When you aren’t strong enough with your bracing hand, you can overbend your horse’s head with your pulley-rein hand. If you’re trying to rate him, all of a sudden, he’s turning instead. If you’re trying to turn him, he’s falling out over his outside shoulder. If you’re trying to stop him, he’s bolting on. And in all three cases, he could turn so sharply and become so unbalanced, especially if he’s going very fast, that he could literally tip over.

DON’T jerk: Jerking isn’t an aid–it’s just cruel. The pressure on the pulley rein is a constant pull that’s as hard as it has to be until your horse slows, turns or stops because he eventually has nothing to pull against. At that point, you soften as much as you can depending on his normal kind of contact. But NO jerking.

Check for possible injury: Any time you use a pulley rein, whether it’s a one-time occurrence or a regular part of your training, check your horse’s mouth, just the way you would check your car’s brakes after an emergency stop. Turn his lips out at the corners and run your fingers over his gums to see if there are any cuts, bruises or swellings that need to be treated or allowed to heal.

Speaking of her beloved 19-year-old Dutch Warmblood mare, Kim, Stephanie Simmonds says, “Kim always leans on my hands. It’s the way she’s comfortable. So I learned to use a pulley rein to rate and turn her, and to accept that I can never totally let go or I’ll get run away with. I’ve probably won more blue ribbons on Kim than I have on all the other horses in my whole life combined. But she’s so fast and so heavy that if I didn’t have the pulley rein, I couldn’t have done it!”

At her Stillwater Equestrian, headquartered at Leap of Faith Farm in Walnut Creek, California, Stephanie’s goal is to provide a safe, caring, fun environment for students of all levels, from walk/trot to grand-prix jumpers. She fulfills that goal in part by stressing the technical aspects of horsemanship and jumping, including the miles per hour of all the gaits and, of course, that the pulley rein isn’t just for emergencies.

In her more than 25 years of equestrian experience, she has coached students to many championships, including the Onondarka and PCHA Medal Finals, Hunter Champion and Best Child Rider Champion at Devon, and Grand Hunter and Leading Trainer at the Pennsylvania National Horse Show. She was chef d’equipe for the Zone 10 Prix de States Junior Jumper Team and twice for the North American Young Riders Jumper Team.

This article originally appeared in the March 2011 issue of Practical Horseman. 

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